Ann Arbor News

Grant targets domestic violence

Washtenaw one of three counties nationwide to receive $10 million federal grants

Friday, October 1, 1999
By WILL STEWART
NEWS STAFF REPORTER
The Ann Arbor News

Washtenaw County is among three communities nationwide to receive $10 million federal Justice Department grants, under which officials plan to create a countywide special unit of police officers, prosecutors and specialists to combat domestic violence.

"It's a real boost to the area and how we deal with domestic violence," Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brian Mackie said this morning. "It reinforces the fact that we're on the right track because one thing they were looking for was a coordinated approach to dealing with this issue."

Mackie said he learned Thursday morning that the county received the five-year grant, which will award $2 million annually to the county to increase prosecution of domestic batterers and to improve services to survivors of abuse.

The county will begin receiving the money on Jan. 1. In addition to Washtenaw County, similar grants were awarded to the city of Boston and Milwaukee County in Wisconsin.

Justice Department spokeswoman Linda Mansour said this is the first time the so-called "demonstration" grants have been available. She said officials in the department were impressed by the fact that Washtenaw County presented a unified approach to seeking the funds.

"I think one of the things was that all of the players - police, prosecutors, victims' advocates, probation officers and judges - were working together," Mansour said. "They all participated in drawing up the proposal, they all knew one another and they were really talking to one another."

Mansour said the National Institute of Justice will monitor the county's implementation of the grant funds and use the data to assist other communities in dealing with domestic violence.

"Our hope is that it will lead to better intervention systems all over," she said.

Mackie said the grant will allow his office to set up a domestic violence unit that will include four full-time assistant prosecutors; police officers from Pittsfield Township, the city of Ypsilanti and the county sheriff's department; domestic violence specialists; and probation officers.

He said the unit will work to increase prosecution rates against domestic abusers, while improving services to victims.

"All of this is important," Mackie said. "These cases have constituted 19 percent of our caseload over the years and, since they are crimes against people, they are more time consuming than other cases."

Mackie said he is especially excited about an "intensive probation" program that will be funded under the grant. That program will assign probation officers to work exclusively with convicted batterers in order to better monitor their behavior and, hopefully, have a greater influence on them.

"Every probation officer wishes he could spend more time with each person on their caseload," Mackie said. "But these agents will be assigned only to domestic violence offenders and they will have time to work with them and make sure they are complying with the orders of the court and be able to modify the batterer's behavior by spending more time with them.

"I think this is going to make a big difference."

Domestic violence cases have long been a priority in Washtenaw County.

The prosecutor's office already has one assistant prosecutor dedicated solely to domestic violence cases in 15th District Court under a smaller Justice Department grant and Mackie said the office has a policy of not dismissing domestic violence programs unless absolutely necessary.

In addition, prosecutors and police maintain a close relationship with the Domestic Violence Project-SAFE House, which operates a shelter for battered women that was funded under a voter-supported bond issue.

It was the collaborative approach to fighting domestic violence that landed the county the grant, Mackie said.

"They were pleased with what they saw from the courts, from law enforcement, from prosecutors and, of course, the Domestic Violence Project," he said. "They wanted to see teams that already were up and running and that's what we have.

"And this will allow us to develop those relationships even further."

Last year, of roughly 1,500 domestic violence cases that were submitted to the prosecutor's office by police. 974 were authorized for prosecution.

Of those, about 56 percent were dismissed on the day of trial because of problems with witnesses, Assistant Prosecutor Blaine Longsworth said.

However, of the remaining cases, 80 percent resulted in convictions, he said.

"Obviously, we hope these numbers will increase under the grant," he said.